From washing the manager’s car at 16 to a senior England call-up at 21, James Maddison has been on quite a journey.
The Leicester City midfielder has enjoyed a stellar start to life in the Premier League, scoring three goals and assisting two more, and is now part of the England squad preparing for Nations League matches against Croatia and Spain.
His rise from relegation dogfights in League One to starring on his Premier League debut at Old Trafford caught the attention of national manager Gareth Southgate – but it hasn’t always been a smooth progression.
‘If he did something wrong, he would wash my car’
When Maddison started his career at Coventry City, then managed by Steven Pressley, he could sometimes be found in the car park with a bucket in one hand and a sponge in the other.
“We would get the young players to tidy the changing rooms and clean the senior players’ boots – and if I felt James had done something wrong, he would wash my car,” said Pressley.
But underneath the soap and suds, Pressley knew he had a player with “outstanding technical ability”, and gave him his debut as a 17-year-old in a League Cup tie with Cardiff City in August 2014.
“He was 16 when he started training with the first team and didn’t take any time to feel his way in. He was confident in his ability and he felt like he belonged there,” added Pressley.
“It wasn’t a case of shaping his ability, because he had been born with that. It was about shaping him as a young person, and as an individual, into a footballer who could perform season after season.
“It was about making sure that self-belief and confidence didn’t start to become arrogance.”
Word of Maddison’s talent had spread – and opposition managers would often enquire about him.
“I remember we had an under-23s game at QPR and I bumped into Harry Redknapp in the tunnel at half-time,” said Pressley. “James was only 17 at the time, but all we talked about was him and his ability.”
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Flamboyant, confident – but a late developer
But progression wasn’t a foregone conclusion for Maddison.
Having joined Coventry before his eighth birthday, he had to watch some of his team-mates rewarded with schoolboy contracts before he was.
“He was one of the smallest players in the age group and physically he had to compete and fight,” said Sky Blues academy manager Richard Stevens.
“That probably added something to his game because he had to be different and he had to develop in other areas.”
Maddison played alongside Leicester and Wales forward George Thomas in the Coventry academy, which had previously produced Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson and Fulham defender Cyrus Christie.
Despite his slender frame, his technical ability – and swagger – was impossible to ignore.
“He was always flamboyant and confident when he played,” said Stevens.
“He was very talented and driven, and he just absolutely loved football. He always wanted to be the best player.”
Stepping up the football pyramid
After moving to Norwich City in 2016, Maddison had to wait more than a year to make his debut for the club, spending that time on loan – first back at Coventry, then at Scottish Premiership side Aberdeen.
The highlight? A stunning 90th-minute free-kick to give his side victory over Rangers in September 2016.
Daniel Farke’s appointment as Norwich boss the following summer was the opening he needed.
A sensational season followed featuring a memorable winner in the local derby with Ipswich, inclusion in the PFA Championship Team of the Year, the award for Norwich’s Player of the Season and an England Under-21 call-up.
All of which culminated in a move to Leicester in summer in a deal worth at least £22m.
“Every time he has stepped up he has excelled,” said Stevens.
“He goes to Aberdeen and scores great goals, then he goes to Norwich and is named man of the match nearly every other week. Then he goes to England Under-21s and impresses, and now he is scoring goals for Leicester in the Premier League.
“He enjoys the things that come with it but he is completely committed to his career as a footballer. The wealth, prestige and awards ceremonies come with the territory.
“This next step is the biggest one because he is going to have to maintain his levels in the biggest league in the world, but he is also going away with the very best in the country for the national team.”
Can he make an impact for England?
This summer saw England’s best World Cup performance for 28 years. But former winger Chris Waddle said they lacked a maverick who “could make the difference” – and that Maddison’s “swagger and edge” could make him the man to do that.
“One of his best attributes was that he could change the speed of the game at the correct time,” said Pressley. “He can play as a 10, where he creates things, or he can play as a six where he controls the tempo of the game.
“When he first came through at Coventry, he knew when to slow the game down and it was amazing for someone so young. I loved working with him.”
Maddison will be hoping Southgate has the same view.